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Matt Ratner's Directorial Debut Screens as an Addition to the Cleveland Jewish Film Festival 

Director Matt Ratner likes to say that growing up in Northeast Ohio defines him. He studied theater at Shaker Heights High School and then moved to Los Angeles after a short career in politics. His new film, Standing Up, Falling Down, screens at 7 p.m. on Monday as an additional part of the Cleveland Jewish Film Festival.

"I went to Shaker and having that experience and having such access to the culture in Cleveland and being surrounded by nice, good people was really formative," he says via phone. "I'm always struck when I meet people from Cleveland and see how deep those bonds are. Also, being a lifelong Cleveland sports fan prepares you for the volatile nature of the movie business."

After moving from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles about nine years ago, Ratner originally intended to pursue his passion to direct. He got sidetracked and wound up forming a production company.

"I just fell into producing," he says, adding that someone he worked with on Match, the first film he ever produced, helped lead him down the path of directing by showing him the script of Standing Up, Falling Down.

"I've always been a believer that life is messy, and it's okay to make movies that are messy," he says when asked what he liked about the Standing Up, Falling Down script. "I thought this script honored the fact that life is comedy and drama, and I felt like there were moments that are sidesplitting funny; but it's also about something without being heavy-handed about it. It deals with the nature of regret and the nature of second chances. I quickly felt that it wasn't a story I wanted to tell but a story I needed to tell."

The film centers on an unlikely friendship that develops between a dermatologist (veteran comedic actor Billy Crystal) and a struggling standup comedian (Ben Schwartz) who moves back home to live with his parents after failing to make it in comedy. Crystal and Schwartz have terrific chemistry in the film, and Ratner says that chemistry continued even when the cameras weren't rolling.

"They had not met each other before the film," he says of Crystal and Schwartz. "The movie is so much about their friendship. If it was a big studio film, we would do chemistry reads, but we didn't have that luxury. Ben [Schwartz] was in Atlanta shooting something, so we never met until rehearsals. They developed this amazingly close friendship. It was a joy to watch."

The movie has received a particularly warm reception when it's shown at film festivals.

"It's been really neat," says Ratner, who was at a festival in Indianapolis when he spoke to us. "We're very lucky. It sold out at Tribeca and comes out in February [with wider distribution]. Your job is to make the best art you can and hope people respond. The response to this is lovely. People are drawn to the performances that Ben [Schwartz] and Billy [Crystal] both give and people have responded because it's story-driven. The feedback has been beyond what I had hoped for.

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